By Dan Plouffe
They didn’t have the giant Gatorade canister, but the Ottawa South United Force under-14 boys’ soccer team matched their on-field coordination when they simultaneously attacked their coach with water bottles to celebrate their Ontario Player Development League championship on Sunday.
“I’m very happy to have the shower,” coach Emilio Millan smiled beneath glowing summer-like sun at George Nelms Sports Park in Manotick. “With the weather, it actually allowed me to enjoy it – it’s like Spain today.”
Millan, who grew up and coached in Spain before joining OSU, was enjoying the unseasonable warmth since he knows all about the usual Canadian cold, having landed in Ottawa in December 2021.
“The first session that I did here was with them,” Millan said of his freshly-crowned champs. “I was very happy, I saw the potential they had and now after two years of working very well together, you see the result.”
He added there would be no extra sprints coming for his players as punishment for soaking him.
“That means the camaraderie that we have with the boys is great. It’s been awesome working with them,” Millan underlined, while noting the collaborative and supportive spirit extends through the whole team at OSU, with a big number of coaches and staff on hand to watch their title-clinching contest.
The Force went undefeated this season with 17 wins and three ties to win OSU’s first boys’ OPDL overall league championship since 2016 (the club has celebrated a number of girls’ titles in between).
The Force only officially clinched the championship ahead of second-place Vaughan on Sunday, though all they really had to do was avoid defeat by double digits. Instead, OSU stayed true to form and put an explanation point on their championship campaign by pounding Whitby 10-1, which elevated their average goal differential over opponents to 3.9 for the season.
Oftentimes champion teams at the U14 level will have a few physically dominant players who outmuscle or tower over opponents, but that wasn’t the case for the Force, who sought to win through what they do on the ball, their coach highlighted.
“I think that’s a big difference with our club and with teams in our club – we don’t just see bodies, we see the future too,” Millan explained. “And that’s why we have small kids. We focus on the technique, we focus on the future and how we see the player playing in two, three or four years’ time.
“We know that the players will grow up at some time, so we invest in them.”
In the season finale, Whitby struggled to get the ball from OSU, particularly slick forward Isaia Rajakoba, who they fouled over and over again.
The Force responded by scoring goal after goal, with Rajakoba creating piles of scoring opportunities from the wing. He finished one himself, while Ali Nazari more than doubled his total for the season with a five-goal game to lead the way offensively.
Myles Knelsen also scored twice to bring his season total to 21, which was fourth-best on the table of league leaders, while Almedin Brkic and call-up Luka Todorovic added singles.
It was a rare game where the Force conceded a goal. They allowed only nine in 20 games overall en route to a league-leading 14 clean sheets, with 13 from goalkeeper Aidan Dehartog.
“We understand that having the clean sheets and not conceding goals is how we start to get the victories,” Millan signalled. “Every single day, we focus a lot on defending and, in possession, how to prevent counter attacks. Very, very happy with our goalkeeper and our defenders too.”
The strong defensive record continued during the past month despite the absence of centre-back/captain Ty Williams, who was recruited to join the Toronto FC Academy for the start of the school year. Williams will get a chance to face his old mates when his TFC U14 boys come up to Ottawa to face OSU in November.
“It’s difficult, but we’re very happy for Ty,” Millan indicated. “He’s in a professional academy, and that’s why we develop players – to showcase them.”
Charity Shield playoffs on tap for decorated OSU U17 girls
The OSU U14 boys were the lone local OPDL league champions this season, though a couple other teams still have a shot at claiming OPDL Charity Shield crowns awarded to the winners of the season-ending playoff competition.
With several players who were league champions at the U15 level in 2022 and U14 in 2021 in their lineup, the Force U17 girls are headed to the post-season dance thanks to a solid record of seven wins, one loss and three ties in premier division play.
“I know they’re desperate to get to the final. They’ve had a lot of success over the years,” said coach John Duggan, while underlining that his top objective in coaching female soccer for over a decade is always to keep his players involved in the sport long-term.
“Before we speak about any championships or any ambitions, I want the players to stay in the game and see the benefits of it – the social side and the health side.”
Many of the players who starred in past championship victories are no longer with OSU since they were recruited to join the National Development Centre in Toronto.
That includes 16-year-old Annabelle Chukwu, who was called in for the Canadian senior women’s team’s Olympic qualification series against Jamaica. Canada won the second leg of their home-and-home series 2-1 on Sept. 26 in Toronto to clinch their ticket to Paris 2024 4-1 on aggregate.
“I knew it was going to be a big challenge with two age groups coming together. They lost a lot of good players – goal scorers, solid midfield players, solid defenders – and it was going to be almost a rebuilding process,” Duggan noted. “It’s good to see where they are now as a group from where they were a few months back and coming together as a team.
“In the second half of this season, every game has been really tight. With them getting results, especially late in the game as well, that shows a lot of character and a lot of togetherness, for me.”
The Force U17 girls have displayed a knack for scoring big goals in the final minutes while winning the majority of their premier games by one goal. After losing to Ottawa TFC in east division and Cup play earlier this season, OSU also came up with a late marker to escape with a 2-2 tie during an entertaining encounter on Sept. 13 at Millennium Field.
“It’s a good rivalry for the city. And you can tell the girls enjoy the competitive nature of it,” Duggan noted. “These environments are preparing the girls – we want them to push on and go into big colleges and play in front of thousands of fans – and this is great experience for them to deal with pressure and momentum changes.”
Two more points in the standings would have kept playoff hopes alive for 4-3-3 Ottawa TFC heading into their final game next weekend. The fourth or fifth place finish will be a tough pill to swallow for Ottawa TFC, which opened its season with seven consecutive victories in east division play before going on to outscore premier opponents by a combined 25-16. Danika Birch and Mia Cleroux finished second and third in the league scoring race with 23 and 17 goals respectively.
Ottawa TFC U17 boys finish 2 points from 1st, out of playoffs
Despite a very strong 7-2-2 record, Ottawa TFC’s U17 boys were left out of the playoff picture by a narrow margin as well. Twenty-five points were required to win their tight division, a playoff team needed 24 and Ottawa TFC finished with 23.
Coach Brogan Engbers said great team spirit was a big ingredient in his side’s success this season.
“Guys are fighting for each other,” noted Engbers, whose squad saw leader Elijah Roche join TFC Academy midseason.
“For all of them to achieve their individual success, it’s got to come from the team, so when you fight together, that’s what happens,” he added. “For us, the boys’ side has never really seen that much success (in the OPDL), if we’re being honest.
“So at the very start of the season, as a group we set out that we want to be the standard-bearers for that. Forget about just this year, but when the U14s look at us, they see what it is to be a good team. We kind of created this collective identity and I think we just all bought into that.”
After going 14-5-1 and outscoring opponents by 56 over 20 games, OSU’s U14 girls were another team that missed the playoffs by a small margin due to a logjam at the top of the table. Willow Baldree was third on the league scoring chart with 25 goals.
Despite losing just once in premier play, the 4-1-4 OSU U15 girls will be waiting on pins and needles for the result of this week’s rescheduled game between Hamilton United Elite and Tecumseh, with their post-season fate hanging in the balance. OSU’s desired result would be for fifth-place Hamilton to lose, tie or win by no more than three goals against sixth-place Tecumseh.
Two West Ottawa Warriors squads qualified to play in OPDL premier divisions this season, with the U15 girls posting a 1-7-1 record and the U17 boys going 3-8.
The semi-final round of the OPDL Charity Shield playoffs will take place on Oct. 14-15, with the finals on the following weekend.
OSU Force U14 boys photo gallery
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